Racism in the English Language
Robert B. Moore
Language and Culture
An integral part of any culture is its language. Language not only develops in conjunction with a society's historical, economic and political evolution; it also reflects that society's attitudes and thinking. Language not only expresses ideas and concepts but actually shades thought.' If one accepts that our dominant white culture is racist, then one would expect our language‑an indispensable transmitter of culture to be racist as well. Whites, as the dominant group, are not subjected to the same abusive characterization by our language that people of color receive. Aspects of racism in the English language that will be discussed in this essay include terminology, symbolism, politics, ethnocentrism, and context.
Before beginning our analysis of racism in language we would like to quote part of a TV film review which shows the connection between language and culture .2
Depending on one's culture, one interacts with time in a very distinct fashion. One example which gives some cross‑cultural insights into the concept of time is language. In Spanish, a watch is said to "walk." In English the watch "runs." In German, the watch "functions." And in French, the watch "marches." In the Indian Culture of the Southwest, people do not refer to time in this way. The value of the watch is displaced with the value of "what time it's getting to he." Viewing these five cultural perspectives of time, one can sec some definite emphasis and values that each culture places on time. For example, a cultural perspective may provide a clue to why the negative stereotype of the slow and lazy :Mexican who lives in the "Land of Manana" exists in the Anglo value system, where tine "flies," the watch "runs" and "time is money."
A Short Play on "Black" and "White" Words
Some may blackly (angrily) accuse me of trying to blacken (defame) the English language, to give it a black eye(a mark of shame) by writing such black words (hostile). They may denigrate (to cast aspersions; to darken) me by accusing me of being blackhearted (malevolent), of having a black outlook (pessimistic, dismal) on life, of being a blackguard (scoundrel)‑which would certainly be a black mark (detrimental fact) against me. Some may black‑brow (scowl at) me and hope that a black cat crosses in front of me because of this black deed. I may become a black sheep (one who causes shame or embarrassment because of deviation from the accepted standards), who will be blackballed (ostracized) by being placed on a blacklist (list of undesirables) in an attempt to blackmail (to force or coerce into a particular action) me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack (to compel by threat) me will have a Chinaman's chance of success, for I am not a yellow‑bellied Indian‑giver of words, who will whitewash (cover Lip or gloss over vices or crimes) a black lie (harmful, inexcusable). 1 challenge the purity and innocence (white) of the English language. I don't see things in black and white (entirely bad or entirely good) terns, for I am a white man (marked by upright firmness) if there ever was one. However, it would be a black clay when I would not "call a spade a spade," even though some will suggest a white man calling the English language racist is like the pot calling the kettle black. While many may he niggardly (grudging, scanty) in their support, others will be honest and decent‑and to them I say, that's very white of you (honest, decent).
The preceding is of course a white lie (not intended to cause harm), meant only to illustrate some examples of racist terminology in the English language.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of racism in language would be terms like "nigger," "spook," "chink," "spic," etc. While these may be facing increasing social disdain, they certainly are not dead. Large numbers of white Americans continue to utilize these terms. "Chink," "gook," and "slant‑eyes" were in common usage among U.S. troops in Vietnam. An NBC nightly news broadcast, in February 1972, reported that the basketball team in Pekin, Illinois, was called the "Pekin Chinks" and noted that even though this had been protested by Chinese Americans, the term continued to 1>e used because it was easy‑, and meant no harm. Spiro Agnew's widely reported "fat Jap" remark, and the "little Jap" continent of layer John Wilson during the Watergate hearings, are surface indicators of a deep‑rooted Archie Bunkerism (prejudice]. Many white people continue to refer to Black people as "colored," as for instance in a July 30, 1975, Boston Globe article on a racist attack by whites on a group of Black people using a public beach in Boston. One white person was quoted as follows:
We've always welcomed good colored people in South Boston bat we will not tolerate radical blacks or Communists . . . . Good colored people are welcome in South Boston, black militants arc not.
Many white people may still be unaware of the disdain many African Americans have for the term "colored," but it often appears that whether used intentionally or unintentionally, "colored" people are "good" and "know their place," while "Black" people are perceived as "uppity" and "threatening" to many whites. Similarly, the term "boy" to refer to African American men is now acknowledged to be a demean‑ term, though still in common use. Other terms such as "the pot calling the kettle black" and "calling a spade a spade" have negative racial connotations but are still frequently used, as for example when President Ford was quoted in February 1976 saying that even though Daniel Moynihan had left the U.N., the U.S. would continue "calling a spade a spade."
The symbolism of white as positive and black as negative is pervasive in our culture, with the black/white words used in the beginning of this essay only one of many aspects. "Good guys" wear white hats and ride white horses, "bad guys" wear black hats and ride black horses. Angels are white, and devils are black. The definition of black includes "without any moral light or goodness, evil, wicked, indicating disgrace, sinful," while that of white includes "morally pure, spotless, innocent, free from evil intent."
A children's TV cartoon program, Captain Scarlet, is about an organization called Spectrum, whose purpose is to save the world from an evil extraterrestrial force called the Mysterons. Everyone in Spectrum has a color naive‑Captain Scarlet, Captain Blue, etc. The one Spectrum agent who has been mysteriously taken over by the Mysterons and works to advance their evil aims is Captain Black. The person who heads Spectrum, the good organization out to defend the world, is Colonel White.
Three of the dictionary definitions of white are "fairness of complexion, purity, innocence." These definitions affect the standards of beauty in our culture, in which whiteness represents the norm. "Blondes have more fun" and "Wouldn't you really rather be a blonde" are sexist in their attitudes toward women generally, but are racist white standards when applied to third world women. A Mademoiselle advertisement pictured a curly‑headed, ivory‑skinned woman over the caption, "When you go blonde go all the way," and asked: "Isn't this how, in the back of your mind, you always wanted to look? All wide‑eyed and silky blonde down to there, and innocent?" Whatever the advertising people meant by this particular woman's innocence, one must remember that "innocent" is one by the definitions of the word white. This standard of beauty when preached to all women is racist. The statement "Isn't this how, in the back of your mind, you always wanted to look?" either ignores third world women or assumes they long to be white.
Time magazine in its coverage of the Wimbledon tennis competition between the black Australian Evonne Goolagong and the white American Chris Evert described Ms. Goolagong as "the dusky daughter of an Australian sheepshearer," while Ms. Evert was "a fair young girl from the middle‑class groves of Florida." Dusky is a synonym of "black" and is defined as "having dark skin; of a dark color; gloomy; dark; swarthy." Its antonyms are "fair" and "blonde." Fair is defined in part as "free from blemish, imperfection, or anything that impairs the appearance, quality, or character; pleasing in appearance, attractive; clean; pretty; comely." By defining Evonne Goolagong as "dusky," Time technically defined her as the opposite of "pleasing in appearance; attractive; clean; pretty; comely." The studies of Kenneth B. Clark, Mary Ellen Goodman, Judith Porter and others indicate that this persuasive "rightness of whiteness" in U.S. culture affects children before the age of four, providing white youngsters with a false sense of superiority and encouraging self‑hatred among third world youngsters.
Ethnocentrism, or from a White Perspective
Some words and phrases that are commonly used represent particular perspectives and frames of reference, and those often distort the understanding of the reader or listener. David R. Burgest has written about the effect of using the terms "slave" or "master." He argues that the psychological impact of the statement referring to "the master raped his slave" is different from the impact of the same statement substituting the words: "the white captor raped an African woman held in captivity."
Implicit in the English usage of the "master‑slave" concept is ownership of the "slave" by the "master," therefore, the "master" is merely abusing his property (slave). In reality, the captives (slave) were African individuals with human worth, right and dignity and the term "slave" denounces that human quality thereby making the mass rape of African women by white captors more acceptable in the minds of people and setting a mental frame of reference for legitimizing the atrocities perpetrated against African people.
The term "slave" connotes a less than human quality and turns the captive person into a thing. For example two McGraw‑Hill Far Eastern Publishers textbooks (1970) stated, "At first it was the slaves who worked the cane and they got only food for it. Now men work cane and get money." Next time you write about slavery or read about it, try transposing all "slaves" into "African people held in captivity," "Black people forced to work for no pay" or "African people stolen from their families and societies." While it is more cumbersome, such phrasing conveys a different meaning.
Another means by which language shapes our perspective has been noted by Thomas Greenfield, who writes that the achievements of Black people‑and Black people themselves‑have been hidden in the linguistic ghetto of the passive voice, the subordinate clause, and the "understood" subject. The seemingly innocuous distinction (between active/passive voice) holds enormous implications for writers and speakers. When it is effectively applied, the rhetorical impact of the passive voice‑the art of snaking the creator or instigator of action totally disappear from a reader's perception‑can be devastating.
For instance, some history texts will discuss how European immigrants came to the United States seeking a better life and expanded opportunities, but will note that "slaves were brought to America." Not only does this omit the destruction of African societies and families, but it ignores the role of northern merchants and southern slaveholders in the profitable trade in human beings. Other books will state that "the continental railroad was built," conveniently omitting information about the Chinese laborers who built much of it or the oppression they suffered.
Another example. While touring Monticello, Greenfield noted that the tour guide
made all the black people at Monticello disappear through her use of the passive voice. While speaking of the architectural achievements of Jefferson in the active voice, she unfailingly shifted to passive when speaking of the work performed by Negro slaves and skilled servants.
Noting a type of door that after 166 years continued to operate without need for repair, Greenfield remarks that the design aspect of the door was much simpler than the actual skill and work involved in building and installing it. Yet his guide stated: "Mr. Jefferson designed these doors…" while "the doors were installed in 1809." The workers who installed these doors were African people whom Jefferson held in bondage. The guide's use of the passive tense enabled her to dismiss the reality of Jefferson's slaveholding. It also meant that she did not have to make any mention of the skills of those people held in bondage.
Politics and Terminology
"Culturally deprived," "economically disadvantaged" and "underdeveloped" are other terms which mislead and distort our awareness of reality. The application of the term "culturally deprived" and third world children in this society reflects a value judgment. It assumes that the dominant whites are cultured and all others without culture. In fact, third world children generally are bicultural, and many are bilingual, having grown up in their own culture as well as absorbing the dominant culture. In many ways, they are equipped with skills and experiences which white youth have been deprived of, since most white youth develop in a monocultural monolingual environment. Burgest suggests that the term "culturally deprived" be replaced by "culturally dispossessed," and that the term "economically disadvantaged" be replaced by "economically exploited." Both these terms present a perspective and implication that provide an entirely different frame of reference as to the reality of the third world experience in U.S. society.
Similarly, many nations of the third world are described as "underdeveloped." These less wealthy nations are generally those that suffered under colonialism and neo‑colonialism. The "developed" nations are those that exploited their resources and wealth. Therefore, rather than referring to these countries as "underdeveloped," a more appropriate and meaningful designation might be "over exploited." Again transpose this term next time you read about "underdeveloped nations" and note the different meaning that results.
Terms such as "culturally deprived," "economically disadvantaged" and "underdeveloped" place the responsibility for their own conditions on those being so described. This is known as "Blaming the Victim." It places responsibility for poverty on the victims of poverty. It removes the blame from those in power who benefit from, and continue to permit, poverty.
Still another example involves the use of "non‑white," "minority" or "third world." While people of color are a minority in the U.S., they are part of the vast majority of the world's population, in which white people are a distinct minority. Thus, by utilizing the term "minority" to describe people of color in the U.S., we can lose sight of the global majority/minority reality‑a fact of some importance in the increasing and interconnected struggles of people of color inside and outside the U.S.
To describe people of color as "non‑white" is to use whiteness as the standard and norm against which to measure all others. Use of the term "third world" to describe all people of color overcomes the inherent bias of "minority" and "nonwhite." Moreover, it connects the struggles of third world people in the U.S. with the freedom struggles around the globe.
The term "third world" gained increasing usage after the 1955 Bandung Conference of "non‑aligned" nations, which represented a third force outside of the two world superpowers. The "first world" represents the United States, Western Europe and their sphere of influence. The "second world" represents the Soviet Union and its sphere. The "third world" represents, for the most part, nations that were, or are, controlled by the "first world" or West. For the most part, these are nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"Loaded" Words and Native Americans
Many words lead to a demeaning characterization of groups of people. For instance, Columbus, it is said, "discovered" America. The word discover is defined as "to gain sight or knowledge of something previously unseen or unknown; to discover may be to find some existent thing that was previously unknown." Thus, a continent inhabited by millions of human beings cannot be "discovered." For history books to continue this usage represents a Eurocentric (white European) perspective on world history and ignores the existence of, and the perspective of, Native Americans. "Discovery," as used in the Euro‑American context, implies the right to take what one finds, ignoring the rights of those who already inhabit or own the "discovered" thing.
Eurocentrism is also apparent in the usage of "victory" and "massacre" to describe the battles between Native Americans and whites. Victory is defined in the dictionary as "a success or triumph over an enemy in battle or war; the decisive defeat of an opponent." Conquest denotes the "taking over of control by the victor, and the obedience of the conquered." Massacre is defined as "the unnecessary, indiscriminate killing of a number of human beings, as in barbarous warfare or persecution, or for revenge or plunder." Defend is described as "to ward off attack from; guard against assault or injury; to strive to keep safe by resisting attack."
Eurocentrism turns these definitions around to serve the purpose of distorting history and justifying Euro‑American conquest of the Native American homelands. Euro Americans are not described in history books as invading Native American lands, but rather as defending their homes against "Indian" attacks. Since European communities were constantly encroaching on land already occupied, then a more honest interpretation would state that it was the Native Americans who were "warding off," "guarding" and "defending" their homelands.
Native American victories are invariably defined as "massacres," while the indiscriminate killing, extermination and plunder of Native American nations by Euro‑Americans is defined as "victory." Distortion of history by the choice of "loaded" words used to describe historical events is a common racist practice. Rather than portraying Native Americans as human beings in highly defined and complex societies, cultures and civilizations, history books use such adjectives [words] as "savages," "beasts," "primitive," and "backward." Native people are referred to as "squaw," "brave," or "papoose" instead of "woman," "man," or "baby."
Another term that has questionable connotations is tribe. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this noun as "a race of people; now applied especially to a primary aggregate of people in a primitive or barbarous condition, under a headman or chief." Morton Fried, discussing "The Myth of Tribe," states that the word "did not become a general term of reference to American Indian society until the nineteenth century. Previously, the words commonly used for Indian populations were `nation' and `people."' Since "tribe" has assumed a connotation of primitiveness or backwardness, it is suggested that the use of "nation" or "people" replace the term whenever possible in referring to Native American peoples.
The term tribe invokes even more negative implications when used in reference to American peoples. As Evelyn Jones Rich' has noted, the term is "almost always used to refer to third world people and it implies a stage of development which is, in short, a put‑down."
"Loaded" Words and Africans
Conflicts among diverse peoples within African nations are often referred to as "tribal warfare," while conflicts among the diverse peoples within European countries are never described in such terms. If the rivalries between the Ibo and the Hausa and Yoruba in Nigeria are described as "tribal," why not the rivalries between Serbs and Slavs in Yugoslavia, or Scots and English in Great Britain, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, or the Basques and the Southern Spaniards in Spain? Conflicts among African peoples in a particular nation have religious, cultural, economic and/or political roots. If we can analyze the roots of conflicts among European peoples in terms other than "tribal warfare," certainly we can do the same with African peoples, including correct reference to the ethnic groups or nations involved. For example, the terms "Kaffirs," "Hottentot" or "Bushmen" are names imposed by white Europeans. The correct names are always those by which a people refer to themselves. (In these instances Xhosa, Khoi‑Khoin and San are correct.')
The generalized application of "tribal" in reference to Africans‑as well as the failure to acknowledge the religious, cultural and social diversity of African peoples is a decidedly racist dynamic. It is part of the process whereby Euro‑Americans justify, or avoid confronting, their oppression of third world peoples. Africa has been particularly insulted by this dynamic, as witness the pervasive "darkest Africa" image. This image, widespread in Western culture, evokes an Africa covered by jungles and inhabited by "uncivilized," "cannibalistic," "pagan," "savage" peoples. This "darkest Africa" image avoids the geographical reality. Less than 20 percent of the African continent is wooded savanna, for example. The image also ignores the history of African cultures and civilizations. Ample evidence suggests this distortion of really was developed as a convenient rationale for the European and American slave trade. The Western powers, rather than exploiting, were civilizing and christianizing "uncivilized" and "pagan savages" (so the rationalization went). This dynamic also served to justify Western colonialism. From Tarzan movies to racist children's books like Doctor Dolittle and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the image of "savage" Africa and the myth of "the white man's harden" has been perpetuated in Western culture.
A 1972 Time magazine editorial, lamenting the demise of Life magazine, stated that the "lavishness" of Life's enterprises included "organizing safaris into darkest Africa." The same year, the New York Times' C. L. Sulzberger wrote that "Africa has a history as dark as the skins of many of its people." Perms such as "darkest Africa," "primitive," "tribe" ("tribal") or "jungle," in reference to Africa, perpetuate myths and are especially inexcusable in such large circulation publications.
Ethnocentrism is similarly reflected in the term "pagan" to describe traditional religions. A February, 1973 Time magazine article on Uganda stated, "Moslems account for only 500,000 of Uganda's 10 million people. Of the remainder, 5,000,000 are Christians and the rest pagan." Pagan is defined as "Heathen, a follower of a polytheistic religion; one that has little or no religion and that is marked by a frank delight in and uninhibited seeking after sensual pleasures and material goods." Heathen is defined as "Unenlightened; an unconverted member of a people or nation that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible. A person whose culture or enlightenment is of an inferior grade, especially an irreligious person." Now, the people of Uganda, like almost all Africans, have serious religious beliefs and practices. As used by Westerners, "pagan" connotes something wild, primitive and inferior‑another term to watch out for.
The variety of traditional structures that African people live in are their "houses," not "huts." A but is "an often small and temporary dwelling of simple construction." And to describe Africans as "natives" (noun) is derogatory terminology‑as in, "the natives are restless." The dictionary definition of native includes: "one of a people inhabiting a territorial area at the time of its discovery or becoming familiar to a foreigner; one belonging to a people having a less complex civilization." Therefore, use of "native," like use of "pagan," often implies a value judgment of white superiority.
Words that would normally have positive connotations can have entirely different meanings when used in a racial context. For example, C. L. Sulzberger, the columnist of the New York Times, wrote in January 1975 about conversations he had with two people in Namibia. One was the white South African administrator of the country and the other a member of SWAPO, the Namibian liberation movement. The first is described as "Dirk Mudge, who as senior elected member of the administration is a kind of acting Prime Minister . . . ." But the second person is introduced as "Daniel Tijongarero, an intelligent Herero tribesman who is a member of SWAPO ..." What need was there for Sulzberger to state that Daniel Tijongarero is "intelligent"? Why not also state that Dirk Mudge was "intelligent"‑or do we assume he wasn't?
A similar example from a 1968 New York Times article reporting on an address by Lyndon Johnson stated, "The President spoke to the well‑dressed Negro officials and their wives." In what similar circumstances can one imagine a reporter finding it necessary to note that an audience of white government officials was "well‑dressed"?
Still another word often used in a racist context is "qualified." In the 1960's white Americans often questioned whether Black people were "qualified" to hold public office, a question that was never raised (until too late) about white officials like Wallace, Maddox, Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, et al. The question of qualifications has been raised even more frequently in recent years as white people question whether Black people are "qualified" to be hired for positions in industry and educational institutions. "We're looking for a qualified Black" has been heard again and again as institutions are confronted with affirmative action goals. Why stipulate that Blacks must be "qualified," when for others it is taken for granted that applicants must be "qualified."
Finally, the depiction in movies and children's books of third world people speaking English is often itself racist. Children's books about Puerto Ricans or Chicanos often connect poverty with a failure to speak English or to speak it well, thus blaming the victim and ignoring the racism which affects third world people regard of their proficiency in English. Asian characters speak a stilted English ("Honor so and so" or "Confucius say") or have a speech impediment ('`roots or ruck," "very solly," "flied lice"). Native American characters speak another variation of stilted English ("Boy not hide. Indian take boy."), repeat certain Hollywood‑Indian phi ("Heap big" and "Many moons") or simply grunt out "Ugh" or "How." The repeated use of these language characterizations functions to make third world people s. less intelligent and less capable than the English‑speaking white characters.
A Saturday Review editorial on "The Environment of Language" stated language
has as much to do with the philosophical and political conditioning of a society as geography or climate .... people in Western cultures do not realize the extent to which their racial attitudes have been conditioned since early childhood by the power of words to ennoble or condemn, augment or detract, glorify or demean. Negative language infects the subconscious of most Western people from the time they first learn to speak. Prejudice is not merely imparted or superimposed. It is metabolized in the bloodstream of society. What is needed is not so much a change in language as an awareness of the power of words to condition attitudes. If we can at least recognize the underpinnings of prejudice, we may be in a position to deal with the effects.
To recognize the racism in language is an important first step. Consciousness of the influence of language on our perceptions can help to negate most of that influence. But it is not enough to simply become aware of the effects of racism in conditioning attitudes. While we may not be able to change the language, we definitely can change our usage of the language. We can avoid using words that degrade people. We can make a conscious effort to use terminology that reflects a progressive perspective, as opposed to a distorting perspective. It is important for educators to provide students with opportunities to explore racism in language and to increase their awareness of it, as well as learning terminology that is positive and does not perpetuate negative human values.
1. Simon Podair, "How Bigotry Builds Through Language," Negro Digest, March 1967
2. Jose Armas, ".Antonio and the Mayor: .A Cultural Review of the Film," The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Fall, 1975.
3. David R. Burgest, "'the Racist Use of the English Language," Black Scholar September, 1973
4. Thomas Greenfield, "Race and Passive Voice at Monticello," Crisis, April '75.
5. David R. Burgest, "Racism in Everyday Speech and Social Work Jargon," Social Work, July '73
6. William Ryan, Blaming the Victim, Pantheon Books, '71.
7. Morton Fried, "The Myth of Tribe," National History, April '75.
8. Evelyn Jones Rich, "Mind Your Language," Africa Report, Sept./Oct. '74.
9. Steve Wolf, "Catalogers in Revolt Against LC's Racist, Sexist Headings," Bulletin of Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 6, Nos. 3&4, '75.
10. "The Environment of Language," Saturday Review, April 8, '67.
Roger Bastide, "Color, Racism and Christianity," Daedalus, Spring '67.
Kenneth J. Gergen, "The Significance of Skin Color in Human Relations," Daedalus, Spring '67.
Lloyd Yabura, ""Towards a Language of Humanism," Rhythm, Summer '71.
UNESCO, "Recommendations Concerning Terminology in Education on Race Questions, June '68.
From: Race, Class, and Gender: An Integrated Study, 4th Edition. Paula S. Rothenberg, editor. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1998.